SAY WHAT YOU WILL, BUT I HAVE YET TO HEAR ANY FORM OF MUSIC CONFRONT AUTHORITY AS FIERCELY AS AFROBEAT. IT WAS BORN OUT OF STRUGGLE, AND EXISTS TO CHALLENGE THOSE WHOSE OPPRESSION FORCED ITS VERY EXISTENCE. AND WHILE AFRICA'S FELA KUTI IS THE MUSIC'S RIGHTFUL FOREFATHER, ANTIBALAS AFROBEAT ORCHESTRA IS ITS AMERICAN AMBASSADOR. VINNIE RECENTLY SPOKE WITH ANTIBALAS MUSICIAN MARTIN PERNA ABOUT THE BAND'S MISSION, MUSIC, AND MIGHTY MESSAGE.
Martin: Where are you guys based?
Vinnie: Milwaukee, so Iím pretty excited to see you guys in a few weeks.
M: Did you see us last time we came through? Is that how you found out about us?
V: No. I was out of town, unfortunately. Iíve actually known about you guys since Liberation Afrobeat, Vol. 1.
M: Oh, cool. Wow.
V: But I've never seen you guys.
M: The shows in Milwaukee have always been really off the hook. I think weíve been there twice. We did three shows. The second time we were there, we played twice.
V: What is it, man? Do you guys put something in the water when you come here?
M: (laughs) I donít know.
V: I read that you came up with the idea of Antibalas in a Mexico City hotel room.
M: (laughs) Yeah. Everyone asks me about that. I actually have family there, but I normally donít stay with them because theyíre afraid for me to walk around there. (laughs) I was on tour there with another group, and I wasnít really happy playing there. My roommate at the time, our [Antibalas'] trombone player, we were listening to some Eddie Palmieri. I donít know if you know much about him.
M: Eddie Palmieri is a visionary salsa pianist and Latin jazz pianist. He put together this group in the mid-Seventies called Harlem River Drive. They played really hard funk and salsa. And I wanted to create something like that. Not to recreate Harlem River Drive, but to play some Latin music and funk; and I was really into Afrobeat.
M: So, it was sort of that initial thing, thinking something really vague, that I knew could bring different audiences together.
V: Was the political message aspect of the music a part of that initial vision?
M: Yeah, always. The idea of politics or political struggle is part of Afrobeat music. I donít think the two could ever really be separated.
V: And did you ever imagine Antibalas would be as large in number as it is?
M: You know, I always wanted it to be as big as it needed to be. If the music dictated that we needed six members, then we would get six members. But with Afrobeat, you can always add more. At one point during his Egypt 80 days, Fela [Kuti] had something like 20 musicians, not counting all his singers. He had a ton of horns, two bass players, and even two drummers, at times. Ultimately, itís however many people can be down and dedicated and focused at the time.
V: Is that the hardest part? To find people who are more interested in playing for the cause, than to be millionaires in music?
M: In the beginning it was hard, because the concept of it was so new. It seemed so abstract and daunting. Even for my friends who play music and had some familiarity with Afrobeat. There was a handful of people down from the very beginning who, with me, pushed forward. We definitely looked for people who were into Afrobeat. And there were some great guitar players who came through. But, the thing is, to play Afrobeat guitar, you donít need to be a virtuoso in the American sense of the guitar virtuoso. You have to be really into keeping rhythm like crazy, you know? Really focus to play those meditative guitar parts for, sometimes, 20 minutes.
V: It is meditative, but at the same time, it's also really powerful. Do you ever look around when you guys are playing onstage, and think, "Wow. Weíre doing something really different. Something magical."
M: Yeah. I think it feels like that a lot of times. But itís become second nature, you know? And there are some times where it feels more like that than other times. I think it sort of depends on a whole bunch of things: the sound of the room, the energy of the audience....
V: How hard is it to organize and create an album when there are so many of you involved?
M: In some instances, itís a lot easier than I think people would imagine. Like, for example, one of the easiest things is writing the songs. The hardest thing is getting everyone in the same room at the same time.
M: Weíre constantly on the road, on tour, running around. And when we get back to New York, itís like everybody has to go back to work to pay the rent, or catch up on all the things they missed while on the road. I mean, we probably have about 20 tunes we still havenít recorded yet.
M: Yeah. Good ones, too.
M: Theyíre ones where weíre like, "We gotta record that one!" So we want to record some more. Weíre going to try and get back in the studio this summer. But thatís always one of the trickiest things.
V: With so many of you on tour, do you feel like you lucked out, that thereís this huge community of support for you guys? I assume you donít have to pay huge tour bus budgets, or get hotel rooms often.
M: (laughs) Actually, we do. I mean, thereís enough of us where we have friends in a lot of cities, and we might not have to get so many hotel rooms. But we donít know that many people. Even if we could stay at somebodyís house, to have all 12 or 14 of us stay at one house would be kinda rough. I mean, imagine the line to take a shit in the morning!
M: Itíd take three hours! So, a lot of times, even if we have people offering us a place to stay, we wind up getting a hotel room for practicalityís sake. I definitely prefer to stay with people if we know someone in a specific town. Itís nice to be able to get a home-cooked meal, sleep in a real bed... or on a real floor.
V: So, Iíd like to talk about the record a bit.
V: With Who Is This America?, did you enter the studio with a different mindset, or any different intentions than you did on previous records?
M: Well, this record is definitely the most collaborative record. It really represents us all as a group, instead of just representing a few people. Like, the first record, Liberation Afrobeat, Vol. 1, was all tunes that I wrote, and everybody just kind of put their finishing touches on. The second record was more half-and-half. And this one is more "us". There are five or six different songwriters. Quite a few of the tunes, like "Big Man", and one of the ones I brought in, "Payback Africa", were big collaborations; a bunch of people really working to tighten it up and polish it. And thatís really how weíve been doing it for a long time; but the recordings are so far behind where we are in our live shows. This recordís a good feeling, though. People are really psyched about the artwork, and weíre all really excited about the effort that Ropeadope Records, our label, is putting into us. Thereís definitely a better feeling coming through than on previous records.
V: You guys have been around since 1998, correct?
V: So, youíve existed as a band during the end of Bill Clintonís last administration, and into this new Bush administration.
V: Has there been a shift in attitude? I mean, has the change in administrations affected your songwriting at all, or fueled your live show?
M: In a lot of ways, it makes it seem even more necessary. In a way, thatís a bad thing. Ideally, youíd want conditions where music of struggle wasnít necessary. But it is, and things continue to get so much darker. And, you know, Clinton wasnít a very good person, all things said. But, comparatively....
M: Itís so much more than one person, though. Itís everyone whoís working for him, and everyone whoís been working in the government for so long. Theyíre just as responsible for setting these policies, and setting the course for this country. So, itís definitely a lot bigger than Clinton, and a lot bigger than Bush. The strange thing about Afrobeat is that a lot of the earliest songs were written during military dictatorships in Nigeria; those Afrobeat classics that Fela was writing. Weíll perform some of them, and the sad thing about it is that some of the lyrics that weíre singing, about those military dictatorships in Africa in the Seventies, are very, very relevant to what weíre living in now in the United States. It definitely shows a regression on the part of the United States. Weíre more chaotic, more dictator-like, more fearful, less organized... all conditions that were really characteristic of Nigeria in the Seventies. And now, Nigeria in the 2000s is beyond chaos.
V: I donít know how much international touring youíve been able to do, but is it different playing in other countries than it is here?
M: It depends on the countries. Weíve played in 14 different countries, all limited to Europe, and people are so much more connected to the world. We can drive six hours north into Canada, and, upon leaving the United States, itís like, "Welcome to the rest of the world!" (laughs) People outside of America seem so much more tied into the actions of their country, you know? They know whatís going on in the rest of the world, and have a connection to it all; a sense of responsibility, maybe, thatís implied. Whereas the United States is a bubble. Even New York is more connected to the world in a lot of ways than middle America, but not by much. You know, some place in Iraq is burning, and people are just interested in going to the corner store and getting their bagel; living life as if nothing differentís happening.
V: Is that hard for you to see? Doing what you do, amidst the existing possibility that there are more people on Earth not as concerned as you are?
M: Itís frustrating. Especially when we go abroad, because people see us as cultural ambassadors. Weíre the only Americans they get to talk to who arenít backpackers or people in uniform. Theyíll say, "Come here for a sec. What the fuck is going on over there?"
M: Theyíre like, "Why didnít you guys have a revolution when Bush rigged the election?" Theyíre holding us accountable! And we tell them, "Weíre doing what we can." Americaís such a big country; itís not like one group is going to have the solution, or one group will be placed happily upon the mantle. Plus, itís not a wise thing to do. If you try to take it all on yourself, and they knock you out, then itís over, you know?
M: So, the responsibility has to be shared by everyone. And thatís where any movement gets its strength; a lot of people who are down for the cause, and contributing their little bit, rather than one group thatís trying to shoulder everything.
V: Have you ever been able to meet any of Felaís family?
M: We actually were hanging out with his youngest son over in England. Heís done shows with Femi Kutiís group, and he sat in with us on a couple of occasions. So, without being with him, weíre as connected to Fela as we can be. Weíve done some shows with members of his Egypt 80. Itís important for us to have all this, too, so that weíre not just some music geeks creating this music in a vacuum. Weíre genuinely trying to stay connected to the traditions, even though weíre in New York.
V: I wondered, too, if anyone connected to Fela had seen you, and been like, "Holy shit! These guys are doing it! They got it!"
M: Yeah. Thereís a drummer who was on a couple of Felaís recordings from the Eighties. He actually recorded three songs on our first record, Liberation Afrobeat, Vol. 1. He was really supportive from the beginning. He was like, "You guys got it! You guys are Afrobeat musicians. People who play classical music are classical musicians. You guys are Afrobeat musicians." Just having that encouragement... I mean, I donít like to rely too heavily on people's opinions. But when youíre doing a type of music that is seemingly so far from the context in which you grew up, and you have somebody who was right in the middle of it from the very beginning tell you, "Youíre a part of it, too,Ē that does go a long way.
V: What are your dreams with this?
M: Well, my dreams arenít really relevant. (laughs) Iíve definitely... I wouldnít say retreated, but definitely changed my role in the group. I mean, I still do most of the press and stuff. But as far as me being the main person in the group with the ideas, you know, the facilitator, no. Now Iím trying to just be a better saxophone player, keep on writing tunes, and keep figuring out creative ways to push the group forward. Really, the strength in Antibalas is each musician. Thatís the depth that the group has. Like I said, with this record, thereís something like five different songwriters. One of the reasons that make it so much better is that itíd be really boring if it were a record of just my tunes.
M: I wouldnít want to listen to that.
M: I think what would make me happy dream-wise, is just to get to more countries. Especially a lot of the poor countries, who might not normally be able to afford to bring us. We could do some creative fundraising. The thing with sponsorship is, weíve been approached by a lot of different people at a lot of different times, but weíre really particular about who we take money from. The Catch-22 is, a lot of the people who have the means to bring us to, say, Mexico, are people we donít want to have anything to do with, you know?
M: Itís been a real evolutionary process for everyone in the band, as far as how to relate to people in a non-hierarchical structure. Thereís not some one person who has the final "yes" or "no". Our manager might make a decision, but itís after heís talked to a whole bunch of us. And we as a group will decide, "No. Weíre not going to do this," or "Yes. Weíll do this, but under these conditions." We try to respect everybody in the group. Most of our brains are in the same general head, you know what I mean? But, sometimes, we end up spending hours talking about details. So, like I said, itís a big evolutionary process. And itís preparing us for a society in the future where maybe there is real democracy. You donít even have to vote for somebody. You just express what you need, and what your goals are. I think one of the myths of democracy is that what youíre supposed to be doing is turning over your power to someone who doesnít have to care about you for a couple of years. Thatís not it at all. Whatís happening in America is that, there are only a handful of people in all of Congress who really have the peopleís backs. Itís really unfortunate. So, Antibalas is just a training ground for getting along in a truly democratic way. (laughs)
V: Do you think that, maybe if some of those guys in Congress started a band....
M: (laughs) I donít know. I donít think those guys in Congress have the funk.